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Education News

Travel: Islands - A bird in the hand...will bite viciously in Nauru.

But the locals bite back. It's part of the culture of this South Pacific island, as Cleo Paskal finds out
The Republic of Nauru is an eight-square-mile pile of bird droppings and coral in the South Pacific. Or, more accurately, it used to be a pile of bird droppings and coral, back in the good old days. Now it's mostly the craters and coral pinnacles left over after the Naurans spent much of the century digging up the guano, renaming it "phosphate" and selling it off to Australians and New Zealanders as fertiliser: a trade that, for a while, made Nauru one of the richest specks on earth.

Now that the phosphate is almost gone, Nauru is slowly blinking out from the consumer haze induced by the huge influx of cash. Television sets, microwaves and VCRs bought in the island's economic heyday lie unrepaired and unmissed. The void left by the disappearance of Stallone videos is being filled by an interest in traditional Nauran culture.

So far so good, but what is traditional Nauran culture? Making a fortune off 80ft-deep pits of prehistoric manure tends to leave you open to ridicule. There are about 6,800 Naurans, and not one of them wants to talk to the press. But I wanted to bond. To get to know their hopes and dreams. To go cultural.

A normally reliable unofficial tourist information office is the local pub. Again, the Naurans don't make it easy. After much rowdiness, including countless alcohol-induced traffic accidents on the country's only road, women's and church groups got the government to shut down all the night clubs. Now the only places to drink are the island's one hotel and the staff club at the Nauran Phosphate Company.

Not currently being on the staff of Nauran Phosphate, I headed over to the Menen Hotel. The bar area was mostly full of government officials, the same guys who had shut down all the other pubs. I dived into the alcoholic scrum and within minutes was talking to a heavy-set, middle-aged politico.

It was he who told me about the Legendary Nauran Noddy Bird Hunt. It is something Naurans do without cameras, crowds or drinks trays. Something private, nearly sacred. And this guy knew someone who knew someone who would be willing to take me along for the hunt.

I was in.

The next night, around dusk, a young Nauran called Maxwell, his amiable friend Roy and Roy's smiley wife Em came to pick me up in a nearly dead Land Rover. There were two over-sized butterfly nets sticking out at the back, and all the dials on the dash read zero.

Naurans take their birds very seriously - with excellent reason. The national bird, the frigate, is such a nasty character that it doesn't even fish itself, it just frightens other birds into disgorging their catch.

We clunked our way up into the interior, using mining paths, driving among 60ft bleached white coral pinnacles, the tombstones of the phosphate mines. We drove as far as we could, then took the nets out and set up sentries among the pinnacles, waiting for the Noddies to return from their day's fishing.

Roy took a net and crouched low on a small rise, immobile and silent. Maxwell sat in a small depression at Roy's feet. Em sat about 10ft away, within net-reach of Roy.

Once upon a time, master Noddy callers would summon the birds to their fate, now the Naurans use digitally remastered Noddy call recordings. Roy turned on his tape and waited for the birds to swoop. Soon a small, bat-like form dive-bombed the tape deck. Roy bagged it in his net, then passed it to Em. At first, I was worried for her. The fist-sized Noddy was viciously trying to tear apart the hand she was holding it in.

"Em," I said, "aren't you scared it'll bite you?"

"Yeah," Em said: "they bite, but I'll bite harder, they'll die".

As her jaw tightened round the bird, mine dropped. And then she began plucking feverishly. I've fished and hunted and skinned rabbits. Hey, I'm Canadian, we learn that in primary school. But I've never seen an animal killed quite like that before. It was horrible.

Soon the Noddies were coming thick and fast. Apparently, Noddy distress calls (distress? more like blind panic) results in other Noddies showing up to see if they can help out. Not too clever, these birds.

Anyway, before I knew it I was sitting on the ground next to Em, maniacally plucking Noddies. Their bodies were warm and their feet were still wet from their trip to the sea. I was hesitant at first, delicately pulling out their tail feathers, apologising to the Noddies, explaining that it was nothing personal, that I was a journalist on a job. But that didn't last long. Soon I caught the fever and was trying to outstrip Em. I could feel the bloodlust pumping. More Noddies; I needed more Noddies.

Over the next hour, we (well, Roy and Maxwell - all I caught was a shrub) bagged 31 Noddies, enough to feed most of the neighbours. Yes, I sampled the flesh of Noddies - it tasted like fishy pigeon. And that's how you find the reality of a South Pacific paradise.